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Song Sparrow - Melospiza melodia

Song Sparrows are often challenging to age. Some HY/SY individuals can be recognized by their retained juvenile feathers, but since the preformative molt may be complete, individuals lacking juvenile feathers cannot be reliably aged; many intermediates are also difficult to age in spring. Sex can be determined only by brood patch / cloacal protuberance during the breeding season. 

Juvenile plumage is very similar to that of Lincoln's and Swamp Sparrows; Song Sparrow tends to have a proportionately longer tail, and distinctly wide malar stripe

Quick Tips:

  • Look at the tail - uniformly narrow and pointed rectrices OR a mix of narrow and broad rectrices are indicative of HY/SY, while uniformly broad and more rounded rectrices are NOT useful as they are common among both age classes
  • In fall, examine the iris in good light - it is grayish-brown in HY birds, compared to chestnut-brown in AHY birds
  • Look at the inner secondaries - a contrast between them and more faded outer secondaries is indicative of HY/SY, while a uniform appearance is typical of AHY/ASY (but also of the minority of HY/SY birds with a complete preformative molt)
  • Check the outer primary coverts - they are relatively narrow and pointed with minimal gray edging on HY/SY birds, and relatively broad and rounded with reddish-brown edging on AHY/ASY birds"

Species account prepared by McGill Bird Observatory

Click on any image below to bring up the side-by-side comparison tool.
Age / Sex  Image sets 
Juvenile / Unknown
Lack of a distinct facial pattern, wing and tail often still growing
Thumbnail - MG2-2241-30925-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1947.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2241-30925-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1949.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2241-30925-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1948.jpg
Date: Aug 6
Hatch year / Unknown
Primary coverts relatively narrow without prominent edging; rectrices relatively narrow and pointed; iris gray-brown
Thumbnail - MG2-2341-58015-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1944.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2341-58015-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1946.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2341-58015-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1945.jpg
Date: Aug 8
After hatch year / Unknown
January to July - intermediate between ASY-U and SY-U (common); June to December - broad primary coverts with reddish-brown edging; broad and rounded rectrices; chestnut-brown iris
Thumbnail - MG2-1231-80243-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1938.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-1231-80243-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1940.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-1231-80243-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1939.jpg
Date: Oct 13

Thumbnail - MG2-2431-87108-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1941.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2431-87108-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1943.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2431-87108-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1942.jpg
Date: Apr 30

Additional age / sex class descriptions

The following additional age / sex class descriptions were found for this species:
Age / Sex   Age / Sex class description
Second year / Unknown Primary coverts dull brown with minimal edging; rectrices pointed, worn, and relatively narrow
After second year / Unknown Broad primary coverts with reddish-brown edging; relatively fresh, broad, and rounded rectrices (but note that in some populations SY individuals may have this appearance after a complete preformative molt)
Number of species: 80

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